How Wikipedia gets the Alexander Hamilton story wrong
Wikipedia is perhaps the single most used source of information on just about anything. It is generally reliable for uncontested facts, but when matters are up for dispute Wikipedia too often presents information as truth even when such details are far from certain. For most biographies, the details of one’s life are known and a site like Wikipedia can’t go too far astray. But when it comes to Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the most controversial Founding Father and certainly the one whose early life is the most unclear, numerous errors appear on Wikipedia.
Rather than go through the entire Wikipedia page for Alexander Hamilton and point out every error, I will focus on just one small section: Alexander Hamilton’s “Early military career.” It reads:
In 1775, after the first engagement of American troops with the British in Boston, Hamilton joined a New York volunteer militia company called the Hearts of Oak, which included other King’s College students. He drilled with the company, before classes, in the graveyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel. Hamilton studied military history and tactics on his own and achieved the rank of lieutenant. Under fire from HMS Asia, he led a successful raid for British cannon in the Battery, the capture of which resulted in the Hearts of Oak becoming an artillery company thereafter. Through his connections with influential New York patriots such as Alexander McDougall and John Jay, he raised the New York Provincial Company of Artillery of sixty men in 1776, and was elected captain. It took part in the campaign of 1776 around New York City, particularly at the Battle of White Plains; at the Battle of Trenton, it was stationed at the high point of town, the meeting of the present Warren and Broad Streets, to keep the Hessians pinned in the Trenton Barracks.
I will now address the many errors in this one section alone. (AHTFY is short for Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years.)
“Hamilton joined a New York volunteer militia company called the Hearts of Oak”
Alexander Hamilton joined the Corsicans (not the Hearts of Oak) in April or May 1775. In August or September, when the captain of the Corsican was promoted and left the company, one of two things occurred: 1) the Corsicans changed its name to the Hearts of Oak, or 2) The Corsicans broke up and its members (including Hamilton) formed a new company called the Hearts of Oak. (AHTFY 127-128)
“He drilled with the company, before classes, in the graveyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel.”
They drilled in the Church Yard of St. George’s Chapel. (AHTFY 128)
“Hamilton . . . achieved the rank of lieutenant.”
I am aware of no record of Hamilton being a lieutenant in the militia. I’m not sure where Wikipedia got this information as no citation is given.
“Under fire from HMS Asia, he led a successful raid for British cannon in the Battery…”
While Hamilton participated in the raid, he did not lead it. The raid was led by Capt. John Lamb. (AHTFY 579 note 31)
“…the capture of which resulted in the Hearts of Oak becoming an artillery company thereafter.”
The raid on the Battery occurred in August 1775. Hamilton was not made a captain of artillery until March 1776. There is no direct link between one event and the other, though Hamilton’s bravery in the raid may have helped him win his captaincy months later. Moreover, the Hearts of Oak did not become an artillery company. Hamilton’s artillery company was newly created and new men had to be enlisted. Hamilton may have recruited men from his old militia company, but the companies were distinct. In fact, the Hearts of Oak continued to exist until at least June 1776, long after Hamilton’s artillery company had been created. (AHTFY 127-128, 130-132, 134-138, 577 note 12)
“He raised the New York Provincial Company of Artillery of sixty men in 1776…”
Sixty men is an approximation. The company had 55 men on March 14, the day Hamilton was officially appointed captain of this company (he started recruiting sometime before this and even took command before this date). It had 66 men by the end of March, 69 by April 20, and 93 by June 29. (AHTFY 136-137)
“He…was elected captain.”
Hamilton was not “elected” captain. In New England, companies often elected their own captains. In New York, the Provincial Congress appointed company captains. Perhaps Wikipedia means that the New York government “elected” Hamilton, but there’s no record of an election, only that Hamilton was nominated, examined, and then appointed. (AHTFY 134)
“It [Hamilton’s artillery company] took part in the campaign of 1776 around New York City, particularly at the Battle of White Plains.”
Hamilton’s participation in the Battle of White Plains was first mentioned very briefly by John C. Hamilton in 1834. It was then expanded upon by Washington Irving and John C. Hamilton in the 1850s. There is, in fact, no evidence that Hamilton fought in this battle. Irving and John C. Hamilton provided no sources for their stories and it appears from eyewitness accounts that Hamilton did not fight in this battle. (AHTFY 168-173)
While Wikipedia remains a great tool, this small portion shows how everything must be verified before using it. Wikipedia will only get better as more accurate information replaces outdated and incorrect assertions. There is no better place to start this process than with Wikipedia’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.
After four years of research, writing, and editing, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years is now available for purchase.